07.- 11.06.

P 45: The challenge of misunderstandings in long-distance interconnections: Encounters, exchange and disparities in African history


The challenge of misunderstandings in long-distance interconnections: Encounters,
exchange and disparities in African history

Susann Baller (DHI Paris)
Amadou Dramé (UCAD Dakar)


Short abstract:

This panel considers situations of long-distance interconnections in African history which
produced not only encounters and exchange, but also disparities and misunderstandings. The panel explores both “creative misunderstandings” in such contexts as well as the challenge of misunderstandings when incomprehension may turn into ignorance.


Long Abstract

This panel explores long-distance interconnections in African history by focusing on
situations of misunderstandings. We invite papers which consider travelers, traders, or other social actors who moved around long distances and who encountered situations of
incomprehension and misinterpretation. Papers may focus on the experience of those who
moved, and/or of those they met on their way, and/or on those who tried to trace or control their journey. Each approach can be situated in a “contact zone” (Pratt), where people “meet, clash and grapple with each other” in contexts of uneven power relations, and each approach can offer insights of how these encounters may have led to misunderstandings.

However, this panel wishes to go beyond the colonial encounter and analyze also other
interactions of people on the move within Africa or between Africa and other continents,
which may include precolonial encounters or those during decolonization and  ndependence. Thus, not only explorers, missionaries or colonial administrators were facing the challenge of misunderstandings, but also traders, political or religious leaders, students or business people. Moreover, while papers are welcome to look at the possibilities of “creative misunderstandings”, the panel also wants to highlight the challenge of misunderstandings when incomprehension blocks any further comprehension.

Throughout African history, many examples show that encounters not always produced new ways of understanding, but rather misapprehensions, disregard and ignorance. Reasons for these misunderstandings were multiple: sometimes information was just missing, often prejudices were involved, and usually different languages interacted, all contributing to the challenge of (mis)understanding. Papers may reflect on such reasons, but are also invited to consider the consequences of misunderstanding, which may reach from (false) accusations to breaking relations, but also include complicated communication and negotiating meaning. Misunderstandings are understood in this context as a challenge which social actors on the move encounter and deal with, but may not always solve.


01 Lamine Faye: The Senegambian coast in 15th and 16th century: Early Euro-African contacts, conflicts and negotiation

For a long time, the region of Senegambia along the West African coast was rather a periphery in regard to the interior of the continent where many large political formations were placed. From the 15th century onwards, however, this situation changed, following the arrival of Europeans on the African coast. In the beginning, most of them were soldiers sent by the Portuguese Crown. They had only heard about Africa south of the Sahara through stories told by Arab and Jewish traders. Their first direct contacts with Africans were not easy at all. The arrival of Portuguese seamen provoked mistrust and uncertainty among the local population. This often led to conflicts and sometimes armed hostilities. As the Portuguese Crown was mainly interested in exploring Africa’s richness, in particular gold, they asked the sailors to change their strategy and rather privilege negotiation and trade.
This paper focuses on these first contacts. Based on Portuguese, other European and Arab sources, I analyze different examples from the 15th and 16th centuries. Once Europeans tried to get in direct contact with Africans along the coast, they did not have any common language to speak to the local population directly. This provoked constantly misunderstandings. Lacking any intermediaries who would have been able to negotiate with both sides, this situation often resulted in armed conflicts. Only with the beginning of the 16th century, some coastal people specialized in serving as intermediaries between European arrivals and African from the interior. This allowed for establishing commercial relations. The paper highlights the example of Zurara, who was one of the first sent by the Portuguese Crown and who wrote about his experience at his arrival. He describes the first violent contacts with the local population, but also about strategies of negotiation. His delegation aimed at selling European products, such as vine bottles, but Africans did not know these bottles and were not interested at all in buying this. Yet, the Portuguese tried to bring other products, such as horses, which were already known at the Senegambian coast from trans-Saharan trade routes, and which helped Portuguese to open a market. These examples demonstrate how moments of incomprehension were followed by developing new strategies of negotiation, which, however, often produced again further misunderstandings.

Lamine Faye is lecturer in Medieval History at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal.


02 Allan Yvart: Race, colonial praxis and caste-system: the “laptots” maritime workers in Senegal (17th-19th centuries)

This paper examines the question of what are the “laptots” in Senegal in the long durée: a craft, seasonal workers, a “racialized” group, a “caste” group, a servile group, townsmen, a protégé, a migrant? Historiography has offered an unconvincing answer, based on a far too literally reading of European archives. However, the administrative archives of the Compagnie des Indes et de la Couronne de France – crew roles, plans, reports, statements of accounts, etc. – provide interesting insights into this group. They perceived this group as “exotic” and “strange” and represented it as a “Wolof caste society”. This interpretation was a result of incomprehension and misunderstandings. It was influenced by other “oriental” studies which were unable to understand the complex societal structures in West Africa. Based on available archives, this paper, however, aims at analyzing the concrete encounter between members of the Compagnie des Indes et de la Couronne de France and “laptops” in Senegal in order to demonstrate, how this categorization was produced and how it has been transformed in the long run. Focusing on moments of direct interrelations in the Senegambian region, the paper reflects how members of the Compagnie were unable to understand the local societies and lost in translation.

Allan Yvart is doctoral student in History at the University of Nantes, France.


03 Amadou Dramé: When misunderstandings produce categorisation: On the concepts of Marabout and Islamism in French West Africa, 1895-1960

When French West Africa (AOF) was created in 1895, France seized not only power over populations but also over categorizing people. This produced contradictory perceptions of West African cultures and spirituality, and in particular, of Islam. Dealing with local Islamic was not only characterised by fascination, but also by fear and incomprehension. This often provoked defensive attitudes and reflexes. Against this background, the colonial administration developed a whole system of categorisation and identification for controlling the West African Muslim population. In this context, the administration created specific institutions, which were supposed to provide knowledge on West African Islam. This knowledge shaped notions which can be traced in administrative documents and reports compiled in archives as well as in the literature published by colonial administrators [Arnaud, 1912; Marty, 1917, 1922; Gouilly, 1953, etc.].

These documents tell us much more about how administrators imagined Islam than about the Muslims themselves. “Marabouts” and “Islamism” were central concepts produced by colonial administrators. However, it is not always clear how they produced these concepts, and often it is evident that colonial ideas of who was a “marabout” and who was an “Islamist” were rather based on misunderstandings and incomprehension. Administrators tried to collect information, but they didn’t know the language and relied on informants who used their own power to share information or not. Missing more profound information, but observing that West African Muslim scholar often travelled around the Sahel and Sahara as far as to Egypt and the British Sudan, colonial administrator imagined West African Islam as a simple copy of “Arab Islam”, but without its “purity” of its origin and stigmatized as “Islam Noir” and “suspicious”.

Amadou Dramé is lecturer in History at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal.


04 Anne-Kristin Hartmetz: Lost (and found) in translation: Ghanaian and Soviet engineers and workers in northwestern Ghana, 1962-1964

There is general consensus among historians working on relations between African countries and Eastern Europe during the Cold War that in the early 1960s the Soviet Union functioned both as a donor and as a socialist role model for several African leaders who were trying to modernize post-colonial states within the shortest time. Kwame Nkrumah and the CPP in Ghana, too, pursued an ambitious development policy, choosing a socialist path of development and close cooperation with the Soviet Union and socialist countries in the early and mid- 1960s. The focus of cooperation in Ghana was on so-called economic and technical cooperation. While it is widely agreed that Soviet aid and cooperation raised high expectations followed by a period of disillusionment not much is said about how the implementation of development projects worked in practice.

Soviet consultants, engineers and technicians travelled to Ghana, often without having been prepared for the mission.  Misunderstandings on both sides were frequent in this early phase of encounters. There was no straight forward strategy on the Eastern side for dealing with Ghanaian projects.  At the same time Ghanaians were also experimenting with the Soviet offers. Neither side had an elaborate plan for these encounters. Personal experience played an important role, and a lot of decisions were made on a “trial and error” base

The paper will outline the macro level of these dynamic relations and then zoom into a concrete zone of contact. It follows Soviet engineers and geologists to a construction site in northwestern Ghana. Here Ghanaian and Soviet protagonists met directly and worked together. Based on the experiences of a young Soviet interpreter, I will show how cultural differences and language barriers could lead to misunderstandings. However, the paper focuses less on deficits and the failure of communication and cooperation, but rather examines how creatively Ghanaian and Soviet protagonists dealt with each other and with the problems at this "construction site of socialism". The article uses sources from the Ghana National Archives and the Russian Federal Archive in Moscow, as well as biographical and autobiographical evidence and interviews.

Anne-Kristin Hartmetz is doctoral student in Global History at Leipzig University, Germany.


05 Susann Baller: The Challenge of Misunderstandings: Anglo-francophone Political Encounters in West Africa during early Independence

This paper focuses on international relations between anglo- and francophone West African countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s by exploring official travels and state visits of African political leaders visiting each other. These travels took place in a context, when African political elites campaigned for pan-African ideas in general, while some tried to realize federal projects between African states, among them between anglo- and francophone states, such as the Ghana-Guinea Union and Senegambia. The paper shows the challenge for African political leaders to communicate and exchange beyond these language barriers, not only because of language, but also because of different perceptions of political culture and protocol. While Pan-Africanism has often been perceived as a driving force for early independence Africa, the concrete encounters between political leaders, and in particular between anglo- and francophone leaders were sometimes characterized by incomprehension and misunderstandings. The paper explore concrete examples: (i) official travels to Independence Day celebrations, (ii) official visits between Ghanaian and Guinean political leaders within the Ghana-Guinea Union, and (iii) official travels between Senegal and Gambia. It addresses the issue of language and translation as well as the role of intermediaries who served as translators between political leaders, while in the Senegambian case, Wolof served as an intermediary language. Moreover, it indicates how protocol could help to create a formal frame for international encounters, but could also get misunderstood and complicate communication. Based on archival material and press cuttings from Senegal, Ghana, Paris and London, the paper thus demonstrates that one challenge for Pan-Africanism was the challenge of misunderstandings in international relations.

Susann Baller is historian and academic director at the IHA-CREPOS research programme in Dakar, Senegal, affiliated with the German Historical Institute Paris.


06 Anton Tarradellas: « Sink or swim »: Knowledge transfer, political radicalization and racial violence in the experience of African students in 1960s America

The moment of African independence resulted in a real boom for study abroad. On the one hand, the new African governments sought to rapidly train the elites needed for nation-building and development, while on the other hand the Soviet and American powers joined the former colonial metropolises in the race to attract the best students to their universities. In the United States, under the impetus of President Kennedy, the government set up the ASPAU and AFGRAD scholarship programmes which enabled more than 4,000 students coming from 45 different African countries to study in US universities from 1961 onwards.

For US officials, the acquisition of knowledge in American universities would enable these African students to transfer to Africa the know-how necessary for the continent's economic “take-off”. But this educational assistance also aimed to make African students potential promoters of American interests in Africa, and to this end, the US government and universities sought to promote the country's moral qualities and academic excellence among African students (through student orientation and monitoring programs). For the students, studying in the US was a factor of social ascension and therefore they also tended to highly value their mobility for studies.

Yet the social and political context of America in the 1960s was a particularly explosive environment for these young Africans. Racial segregation was still in force in the South and directly affected hundreds of them. More generally, Americans' profound lack of knowledge about Africa and the racial prejudice it carried made students' daily lives difficult. On the other hand the enthusiasm aroused by African independence, especially in African-American communities, also carried its share of phantasms that did not correspond to the experiences of African students and led to misunderstandings not devoid of a certain symbolic violence.

By following the mobility experiences of African students of the ASPAU and AFGRAD programmes, this paper seeks to deconstruct the idyllic image presented by US officials and also nourished by the developmentalist discourses of some post-colonial African governments. To this end, it aims to show the ambivalence of the connections made by African students. These connections often resulted in very enriching and formative encounters for the students, who sometimes kept in touch with fellow American students or teachers long after their return home. They have also made some segments of the American population more familiar with the cultural and political realities of Africa. But they have also created misunderstanding, disappointment and divisions. Caught between these two trends, students were forced to navigate between what was expected of them and their own projects and hopes. Far from being passive promoters of US values, some have become actively involved in internal US debates (Civil rights, the Vietnam War) or radicalized their engagement on African political debates (pan-Africanism, the wars in Ethiopia, in Biafra, etc.). All of them, in different ways, have played the role of mediators, trying to grasp American complex realities and to adapt in the African context  the knowledge acquired during their study in the US.

Anton Tarradellas is doctoral student and assistant in Modern History at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.


07 Ursula Logossou: Postcolonial (mis)understandings? Remembering intimate colonial encounters of the German colonial period in Togo

Intimate relationships between European men and African women can be seen as an integral part not only of German but of European colonial rule in general. According to Ann Laura Stoler it was above all in the private sphere that colonial rule could be established. The German colony Togo was no exclusion to that practice and had in comparison to other German colonies even the highest ratio of European that had children with African women (about 2:3). These relationships were clearly shaped by structures of power and illustrate the interdependency of race, class, gender and nation in the colonial context (c. Anne McClintock 1995/Ann Laura Stoler 2010). German men associated the colonial space with a freedom that they did not dispose of in the German Empire. They considered themselves as conquerors not just of the land but also of women. Although violence was a common practice with regard to sexual relationships between German men and African women, far not all relationships were forced ones. Particularly, in the period prior to colonization and at the beginning of German colonization, men assured themselves advantages through marriages by local customary law with daughters of chiefs or other influential families of the coastal elite. In return, local families also gained political and economic influence. There also existed short-term or long-term affairs. Several colonial officials as well as merchants lived in long-term relationships with African women. Yet, very little is known about everyday life of these relationships. According to several historians, German men in general made little effort to learn local languages like Ewe as they were accused by colonial society of ‘going native’. Therefore, it can be assumed that on the linguistic level misunderstandings were common. Misunderstandings also appeared in cases where German men did not accept to pay a maintenance to their children born from African women. Records in colonial archives reveal that African women claimed the payment of maintenance from the German colonial administration or even tried to contact the children’s fathers after their return to Germany at the end of the German colonial period in Togo.

My communication will not focus directly on the historical reconstruction of misunderstand-dings of these colonial intimate encounters but on how they are remembered by both the German and the Togolese descendants of German colonizers, i.e. the third or even forth generation that did not experience colonialism by themselves. What importance is given to misunderstandings in their narratives? Are there differences in how misunderstandings are remembered by the German and Togolese descendants and in what way can differences be related to postcolonial asymmetries?

I will furthermore concentrate on postcolonial transnational remembrance of these colonial encounters. Some Togolese as well as some German families tried to contact the descendants of their common ancestor. Can this shared memory be related to a postcolonial understanding in a sense of coming to terms with the colonial past?

Ursula Logossou is doctoral student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Goethe University Francfort, Germany.


Discussant: Felix Schürmann

Felix Schürmann is postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Transcultural Studies at Erfurt University, Germany.

June 8 @ 12:30
12:30 — 16:00 (3h 30')

Zoom Room 3

Amadou Dramé, Susann Baller

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